Proprioception - what it is and why it matters for your baby
I often mention proprioception in baby classes – as in ‘this will help your baby’s proprioception’. But what on earth is it and why does it matter if we help our babies with it?
Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is the sense that allows you to know the location, movement and actions of different parts of the body. It’s a really complex set of processes including things like the perception of movement, joint and limb positions, force and effort. So it requires input from muscles, skin and joints to help the brain figure out what is happening and to co-ordinate movement.
In simple terms proprioception is what allows you to judge how much movement, force and effort you need to pick something up, or touch your finger to your nose, or to jump onto or off a step. It isn’t something that you give a lot of thought to but rather something your body is brilliant at doing subconsciously. It is your mental map of your body.
Proprioception matures at around 3-4 years which is when we see children have a lot more co-ordination in their movements and awareness about their bodies. For example this is the age where catching starts to happen, or pedalling on a trike or even bike.
For our smallest babies, we can help their proprioception by encouraging different movements and stimulating different areas of their body. When we massage they experience touch and stretching across their body which will stimulate lots of nerve endings and create new neural pathways in the brain.
We don’t expect to see anything of concern in our babies as we know that it can take 4 years for proprioception to mature but babies’ brains are learning and processing at a crazy rate and part of their learning will be awareness and control of their bodies so doing activities from a young age that will help is always a positive.
Proprioceptive dysfunction can be identified in sensory seeking, body awareness and postural control.
Children might push, write too hard, play rough, bang feet while sitting, chew, bite, and like tight clothes. Or you might see difficulty going up and down stairs, bumping into people and objects frequently, difficulty riding a bike, slumping or needing to rest head on the desk.
How can you help your baby?
Happily, it is quite easy! Movement and touch both stimulate the proprioceptive system. Massaging your baby, tickling their toes or clapping their hands together will all help as will all the other little things you probably do throughout the day without really thinking about it. When your baby pushes against you on your lap or grabs at your hair, it is all helping their brains figure out movement and force.
Imagine your baby lying on their back with baby gym toys over them. They might be lifting their legs and letting them drop with a bang. Or kicking a bit of fabric that makes a noise. They will be learning how to lift their arm to hit or grab a toy. That means working out where their arm and hand needs to go and how to move it to contact the toy, how much force is needed to make it jingle or how tight to grab hold. Maybe they are turning their head and looking in a mirror.
All of these actions look so simple but all are part of the learning journey and as your baby grows and develops they start to do increasingly complex tasks. First they can hold a toy, then they learn to release it, to pick it up themselves, to shake it, to pass it hand to hand. And you could pass it hand to hand with your eyes closed!
Have you noticed how much babies and young children love repetition? I know it isn’t always fun for us adults when you are reading the same book, singing the same song or playing the same game over and over but every time we do things it reinforces those nerve connections making them stronger – use it or lose it! They learn something new and nerve connections form, they repeat and repeat and the learning strengthens those connections.
Clapping hands or tapping toes, lifting their head or reaching out an arm – it doesn’t matter how big or small something is it is all part of learning and developing. And the best bit is you are doing lots and lots of it without really thinking about it.
Need ideas for devleopmental baby play? Come and join a baby class https://www.bethowen.uk/baby-classes